HAVRE DE GRACE HIGH SCHOOL — recognized in September by President Bush as a National School of Excellence -- posted no excellent marks on the statewide report card and received the most failing grades countywide.
But in the eyes of the school principal, that paradox suggests the purpose of the Maryland State Performance Program: to spur school improvement.
"Obviously, the federal and state governments are looking at different areas," Havre de Grace principal Ronald S. Webb said.
"I guess certain things mean more to some people than others."
The MSPP report on Havre deGrace suggests that it trails other county high schools by falling below minimum standards in six categories.
On functional skills, the school lagged in the number of 11th-graders who passed the math and citizenship tests and the success rate on the reading test at both the 11th- and ninth-grade levels.
Attendance and drop-out rates also were below acceptable standards.
In Washington in September, President Bush praised Havre de Grace and 221 other schools across the country for their leadership.
"We're charting a new course for our nation's schools," Bush said.
"In that course, your schools are the pioneers, the ones blazing a path that others can follow," Bush said.
County schools spokesman Al Seymour said the U.S. Department of Eduction recognized Havre de Grace for its progresssince launching a 10-year improvement campaign in 1985.
Among theschool's successes: Student SAT scores rose 10 points over the last three years, and the percentage of minority students on the honor roll rose to 12.7 percent in 1990-1991, from 8 percent in 1989-1990.
Webb also noted that 52 percent of Havre de Grace seniors completed two years of foreign language study in 1990-1991, surpassing the county's own 50 percent standard for excellence in its addendum to the state report card.
Each of the county's 44 schools has a plan to meetthe MSPP standards.
And the improvement plan launched at Havre deGrace in 1985 has become a model for the county, Seymour said.
"We already had programs in place before MSPP was conceived," Webb said.
Havre de Grace began to turn things around by asking teachers, student, parents and the community what was wrong, he said.
The school drew up a list of eight goals to pursue two at a time. These included improving performance in traditional academic areas like reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as teacher effectiveness and parental involvement.
"Every year our improvement committee identifies two more areas," Webb said. "And that's pretty much what got us here."
"Here" is a school where the drop-out rate declined in the past year from 6.4 percent to 3.9 percent, not far from the state standard of 3 percent.
"That's not even the most dramatic change," Webb said, noting that the drop-out rate was 10 percent in 1985-1986.
During the same period, average daily attendance improved from 85 percentto 90.6 percent, he said. Havre de Grace has about 520 students -- the county's smallest high school.
Six years ago, the school began an aggressive mentor intervention effort to keep students from dropping out.
The Care-Pair-Share program designed by the school identifies "at-risk" students early each year by checking failing grades on the first report cards in November.
Every year, 15 teachers volunteer to pair up with as many as 10 struggling students each, Webb said.
"Every couple weeks, they make a care check to talk about the student's progress and talk to other teachers about how to improve in class," he said.
Four years ago, Havre de Grace was chosen as a pilot school for the Maryland Tomorrow anti-drop-out program.
The program, supported by the state education department and the county's Private Industry Council, alerts school administrators of ninth-grade students who have poor academic, attendance and discipline records.
"Some students fit the profile," Webb said. "If we don't get to these kids early enough, then we're going to lose them right after the 10th grade when they turn 16, if not before."
A class created for the students gives them a chance to improve study skills, identify problem subjects and catch up on work. The Maryland Tomorrow teacher alsostays in constant contact with the students' parents, Webb said.
Other schools have learned from Havre de Grace since its students scored the highest on the citizenship exam two years ago, Seymour said.
"We're teaching the kids how to take the tests, which is what we do with the SAT," Webb said.
The school also sponsors an array of service groups that encourage student participation in charitable, environmental and cultural activities.
Foremost among these is SMILES, which stands for Service Makes Individual Lives Special. More than 100 students participate in efforts ranging from an annual Thanksgiving dinner at the school for the needy to the year-round Telephone Assurance Program, which monitors senior citizens.
Havre de Grace hasfour more years before it completes the improvement plan it launchedin 1985, and Webb isn't worried about comparing his MSPP report cardwith other high schools.
"I personally don't care," he said. "I'mconcerned with Havre de Grace and my concern is not only meeting thestate's minimum standards but achieving excellence."